The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism
With The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, Brent Edwards has changed the very landscape of transnational black studies, showing what we have lost by not developing a more multilingual approach to black cultural studies and texts. Retracing the encounters between black intellectuals from both the Anglophone and the Francophone world in Paris, during the early to middle decades of the twentieth century, Edwards is able to make broader theoretical and historical claims for the role of translation in shaping black diasporic cultures. As Edwards eloquently states, "the cultures of black internationalism can be seen only in translation. It is not possible to take up the queston of 'diaspora' without taking account of the fact that the great majority of peoples of African descent do not speak or write in English. . . . [O]ne can approach such a project only by attending to the ways that discourses of internationalism . . . are translated, disseminated, reformulated, and debated in transnational contexts marked by difference" (7).
The fascinating convergences in Edwards's account go well beyond the famous encounter of Negritude figures, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, with Anglophone Caribbean novelist Claude [End Page 792] McKay's text Banjo, the latter a fictional account of a group of black drifters in the seaport town of Marseilles. Rather, Edwards's cultural history also includes a discussion of the Francophone black women at the center of this world, specifically the Nardal sisters, Jane and Paulette, whom he argues were as much the "midwifes" of Negritude as Jesse Fauset was of the Harlem Renaissance (134). One of Edwards's most fascinating excavations: a discussion of the extensive black writing in black French journals and newspapers of the period, itself often a missing dimension in our accounts of the black cultural Renaissance on this side of the Atlantic. It is in the fragmentary, immediate, daily moments of the newspaper article and the essay that we find the kinds of convergences and encounters that lay bare lost intellectual histories of black Atlantic traditions and pan-African movements, just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid archivist willing and able to bridge the linguistic gaps separating black worlds.
Other recent studies have attempted to tell the story of "the Negro" in France, such as Bennetta Jules-Rosette's Black Paris: The African Writer's Landscape (1998), Michael Fabre's From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980 (1991), and Tyler Stovall's Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (1996). Edwards adds to this discussion a sense of the archival richness of a multilingual space that exists in the interstices between American and Francophone black studies. He also adds a necessary theorization of the presence of language differences in both relations and deconstructions of black diaspora. However, what his work only suggests but does not fully articulate is the relevance such encounters may have for providing a window into the world of black proletarian internationalism that continues to elude scholars in Marxist historical and literary criticism of the period.
In The Practice of Diaspora, Edwards follows both Fanon, and Marx before him, in continuing to see black transnationalism as a deviation from the revolutionary categories central in Marxist definitions of internationalism. Rather, as the richness of Edwards's own account demonstrates, like other Third World Marxisms, black internationalism adheres to one of the essential principles of Marxism itself, that each revolution would define itself according to its own histories and cultural traditions. Black subjects, both within and across the linguistic boundaries that divide them, have been charting their own internationalist movements and circumatlantic geographies in ways even Marx could not foresee from his vantage point in Europe. The "rise of black internationalism" forecasted and described in Edwards's account, and in the work of black studies scholars before him such as Robert Hill, Ernest Allen Jr., Penny Von Eschen, and [End Page 793] Robin D. G. Kelley, actually forces us to translate those Marxist metropolitan categories for class-consciousness into the many languages of proletarian blackness.